How to Lead Through the Pandemic and the Recovery Phase

Jul 12, 2021


By: Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Among the wide range of fascinating insights from the 100-year-old science of leadership, perhaps none are as uncomfortable as the notion of a significant gap between the qualities that propel people into leadership roles and those that are actually needed to be an effective leader.

As I highlighted in my last book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It) (Harvard Business Review, 2019), this gap also explains the pervasive gender imbalance in leadership: When we select leaders on the basis of their confidence, charisma, or power hunger, it should not surprise us that we end up with more male than female leaders. By the same token, these parameters explain why leaders are not typically known for their competence, humility, or integrity, and why narcissistic individuals over-index at the top of any organizational hierarchy or system.

If this was a problem before the pandemic, it is now a disturbing reality, one that accounts for the widespread leadership failures around the globe. Too many leaders are out of depth, exposed, and have nowhere to hide. As I observed in my March 15, 2020 article in Forbes, “Why Are Some Leaders Better at Managing a Crisis?”, while many of the key features of the pandemic are not as “unprecedented” as most people think—so yes, the word has been overused in unprecedented ways—there is surely one unique aspect to this crisis: It is a global leadership experiment like we have never seen before. Leaders around the world are being put through the same test, with unparalleled access to the same standardized KPIs, and the world is watching closely.

Furthermore, since we have never dealt with this virus before, let alone a digital-age pandemic, it has been largely impossible for leaders to rely on their past performance and expertise to mitigate this crisis. Instead, every leader has had to start from scratch, with a blank slate, and work out how best to mitigate the damaging consequences of this devastating virus.


As organizations (and indeed societies) prepare to face the next phases of this pandemic, there is no question that leadership will remain a key focus area. With that, it is important to reflect on what we have learned so far, not just from this crisis but also from the robust body of research derived from solid decades of organizational psychology and an increasingly interdisciplinary science of leadership.

Crisis leadership is just good leadership. There is a long tradition of research around crisis management, which has identified some of the decisive traits and behaviors to predict how some leaders are much better able to manage crises than others. In my talk at the Global Leadership Network’s event in August 2020, “Six Traits Leaders Typically Lack During Crisis,” I outlined that higher levels of intelligence, curiosity, humility, resilience, empathy, and integrity are all critical to improve leaders’ performance during a crisis. And as it turns out, these traits also elevate leaders’ performance during good times—that is, when there is not a crisis. But in a crisis, leadership matters even more: Leaders’ right and wrong decisions will exacerbate effects on their followers, raising the stakes to a matter of life and death. So while mediocre leaders may go unnoticed in good times, we pay a high price for leadership incompetence when the challenge is big.

The good news, however, is that we don’t need to completely revise our leadership models so they are crisis-proof. In fact, all we need to do is select good leaders. Of course, in a logical world, we wouldn’t have needed a pandemic to realize that people are generally better off when their leaders are smart, curious, humble, resilient, empathetic, and honest—or at least show some of these qualities—but in the real world we did. Our only hope is that the crisis reminds us of the importance of picking leaders based on their competence, rather than on their ability to entertain, seem confident, or successfully acquire power irrespective of their intentions or talent. By the same token, we would be suffering a lot less from this crisis if we had made it a habit to pick leaders with these foundational talent attributes, so here’s to learning this lesson and improving things in the future.

Context still matters. Although crisis leadership is in essence just good leadership, the context still matters. Indeed, according to “When and How Team Leaders Matter,” by J. Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman (Organizational Behavior, 2005) over 60% of well-performing teams could attribute their performance to “someone’s personality or behavior—and that someone frequently was the team leader.”

And as Barbara Kellerman and I noted in our February 16, 2021 article in Fast Company, followers matter. This has been clear during the pandemic, as even in the case of high-performing leaders—such as Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand or Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan—there were some favorable conditions, such as location, technological infrastructure, healthcare system, and indeed good followers, that enabled them to tackle the pandemic with success. By the same token, one cannot fully blame Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro for their country’s poor results, because inequality, size, governance, and the mindset and culture shaping follower behavior independently influenced results. Of course, in the case of the United States we are seeing in real time how much can change when we change the leader, but it is always hard to draw conclusions with an N of 1, and even though Biden’s administration deserves praise for its vaccine rollout, it is also true that the vaccines were produced during his predecessor’s mandate.

Organizations can change. A silver lining from this crisis is that incompetent leaders have been exposed (and in some instances also eliminated), which of course came at a high price. One hope is that organizations learn the lesson and start to take leadership selection more seriously. This will require the willingness and ability to become more datadriven in their assessment of leaders. As Jeffrey Pfeffer points out in his book Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time (Harper Business, 2015), and as I noted in The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential (Piatkus, 2017), even before the pandemic there was clear evidence for the idea that leadership competence is the exception rather than the norm. Indeed, if leaders were chosen on talent, Gallup would not report that only about 22% of the global workforce is engaged (this, in mostly large or leading organizations).

In a world where leadership and management roles were assigned on the basis of competence, most people would trust their boss and be inspired by them. Instead, the average experience people have with their bosses is rather more discouraging, if not traumatic. And we continue to see reports of toxic leaders who derail and whose dark side keeps harming their teams and organizations.

Destructive leadership was rampant before the pandemic, and science-based tools could do much to mitigate it. It is noteworthy that the emergence of artificial intelligence and analytics could help, because the only way to evaluate leaders is to actually analyze how they behave and link these data to organizational outcomes. Yet there is clearly a human tendency to distrust AI and campaign against it as a biased tool. Meanwhile, human biases are alive and well, and they will continue to advance people’s careers on the basis of privilege, nepotism, political influence, and “culture fit.”

We’ve all heard it many times: Crises are opportunities to change, as well as traumatic periods of transition where the old is not ready to die, and the new is not ready to emerge. Our big hope is that our old and outdated leadership archetypes, and our tendency to select people based on style rather than substance or confidence rather than competence, will die or at least fade away with this crisis. That way, we can look forward to a future where our lives are not put in the hands of those who are in it for themselves, or have no capacity to make things better for us, but rather are smart, kind, and honest leaders. AQ


Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab.